- Creative Ambivalence and Precarious Futures:Women in British Theatre
Is that cup half full or half empty? I find it hard to decide . . .
When I wrote about Michelene Wandor for Lynda Hart's Making a Spectacle (1989), she was exemplary for connecting the women's movement to theatre in Britain through her multiple roles as critic, historian, playwright, and activist.1 At the time, I thought that her multi-vocal activity was not only ideal, but was bound to become the model for future women's writing about/in the theatre. From my vantage point today, over twenty years later, I cannot say this prediction has come true. Women writers today are much more likely to be self-contained within their own writing agendas, not connected to other women's groups or committed to speaking on behalf of feminist theatre. This is, by now, an old story: the loss of a movement, the neoliberal emphasis on singular achievement, women playwrights reluctant to identify as "women" playwrights, and so on.
However, when I look at women's writing in the UK today, I do have cause for some optimism about the presence of significant women's writing, supported by a number of well-placed artistic directors or other institutional benefactors. Furthermore, there is a striking diversity of fresh and strong voices. Whereas Wandor's The Wandering Jew (1987) was one of the first plays by a contemporary British woman opening on a mainstage of the National Theatre, this past year (2009-10) has seen a number of important plays by women on major institutional and commercial stages: four at the National and eight at the Royal Court (the premiere theatre for new writing in the UK). A theatre like the Young Vic, with a shorter season, hosted three, and the Tricycle Theatre, London's most important political theatre just now, commissioned eleven new short plays by women for its special season called "Women, Power and Politics."2 In addition to new writing, there has also been a number of landmark productions by [End Page 553] women directors and/or actors, such as the highly acclaimed Mother Courage, played by Fiona Shaw and directed by Deborah Warner at the National, and After Dido, based on Purcell's Dido and Aeneas, in an innovative multimedia production by Katie Mitchell for the Young Vic. Mitchell, who is now associate director at the National, received the Order of the British Empire in 2009.
The authors are a mix of familiar playwrights from an earlier time (Caryl Churchill and Bryony Lavery); writers having a second or third success, such as Alia Bano and Polly Stenham; and new writers making debuts, such as Anupama Chandrasekhar, Anya Reiss, and Molly Davies. debbie tucker green is having a revival of her 2008 play Random at the Royal Court and then it will tour—a second production of a contemporary play is an infrequent event, even for established white male writers, so this is a good sign for one of the most prominent and respected of younger-generation playwrights, bar none. The fact that green is female and black is just one bit of evidence of the increasing diversity of writers on British stages; it is almost possible to think that the theatre might finally be catching up with the fact of the multicultural society it represents.
An interesting example, from multiple points of view, is Bola Agbaje. She came through the Critical Mass Programme (a yearly writing workshop for black, Asian, and minority ethnic playwrights run by the Royal Court since 2004). Her first play, Gone Too Far!, premiered at the Royal Court in 2007, winning an Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement and a Most Promising Playwright nomination at the Evening Standard Awards 2008. Her plays If Things Were Different, In Time, and Anything You Can Do were produced at the Soho Theatre, Detaining Justice opened as part of the "Not Black and White" season at the Tricycle in November 2009, and, most recently, Off the Endz played at the Royal Court in March 2010. Off the Endz is built around a triangle, not primarily about sex but about economics: Kojo and Sharon are striving for...